RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The partial government shutdown is over, so hundreds of thousands of federal workers are heading back to work today. But all throughout the shutdown, one government agency was actually in the midst of a massive recruiting effort. The Census Bureau is busy trying to hire a half million workers for the 2020 census. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports.
HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: The national headcount of every person living in the U.S. officially kicks off less than a year from now. More than 90,000 have applied to help carry out the census, including at the Bronx Library Center in New York City.
JESSICA RODRIGUEZ: So right now we're on census.gov. And if we scroll down to the...
WANG: Career coach Jessica Rodriguez shows me the website that for months she's helped job seekers navigate. Many of the openings are for outreach specialists who work with local community groups and supervisor positions, like the one Pamela Hudson is applying for.
PAMELA HUDSON: I'm thinking about transitioning into this job because it's very important to me because we have children that need education. We have children that need health care.
WANG: Hudson says she wants to do her part to make sure communities get their fair share of the hundreds of billions of tax dollars distributed based on census numbers. The partial government shutdown, though, did give her pause about working for the Census Bureau.
HUDSON: When I went on the website, I noticed it said lack of funding. So does that mean that at certain period that the census workers may not get any pay? I'm concerned about that.
WANG: Funding carried over from last year has kept preparations for the 2020 census going. In case there's another shutdown in the coming weeks, the Bureau has said it has enough money to work on the census into April. Whatever happens, though, Tayesha Hudson - no relation to Pamela - says she's not worried.
TAYESHA HUDSON: I know eventually the government is going to have to get it together. And I know that they're going to want this 2020 census to go forward.
WANG: Tayesha Hudson's interested in helping with door knocking and collecting information from people who don't fill out their census forms themselves. Fewer than 7 in 10 households plan to take part in the count, according to a new Census Bureau report. Hudson says she expects to do a lot of persuading if she's hired for the job.
HUDSON: It's about making sure that we get the things that we need in our community, that everybody is counted regardless of their race, regardless of whether or not they're a citizen. We're all in this life just trying to make sure that we can go day by day. So we all should be counted.
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AL FONTENOT: The one thing that keeps me up at night is the one thing I have less control over, and that's our ability to recruit and hire.
WANG: That was Census Bureau official Al Fontenot speaking at a public meeting last year. He's been worried about filling a half million jobs for the census. As of last week, the bureau has hired a tiny fraction of that number. A low unemployment rate could result in an applicant pool smaller than the bureau would like.
Elzie Wright is a program coordinator for a community group based in Brooklyn. And she says there's another challenge. The Trump administration wants to include on the 2020 census the question, is this person a citizen of the United States? A federal judge in New York has ordered the removal of the question. The administration wants the Supreme Court to let the question stay. Wright says, if it does, many census workers will have a harder job.
ELZIE WRIGHT: They know that they probably (laughter) won't get too many answers or too many participants, especially now in this environment.
WANG: Wright has worked on outreach to the Haitian community in Brooklyn.
WRIGHT: Let's face it. There's a lot of undocumented people in the community. And that makes them suspicious, you know, to talk to anybody.
WANG: The Census Bureau is expecting fewer households to respond to the census if there is a citizenship question. That could mean the bureau might have to hire more workers in an already tight labor market. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, New York.
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